Biden’s Supply Chain Envoy says automating ports doesn’t have to cost jobs

By Laura Curtis (Bloomberg) —

The White House supply chain officer said the ports and logistics industries must move toward automation, a sticking point in lengthy contract negotiations between West Coast dockers and their employers.

Automation is inevitable and the industry should be “moving there on purpose rather than being dragged along,” Stephen Lyons said on Tuesday.

Lyons has been involved with outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 22,000 West Coast dockers, and the Pacific Maritime Association – which speaks for companies – over a new labor contract to replace one that expired in July .

The use of port automation and issues of work distribution at specific terminals are some of the major bones of contention in the talks. The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together are the top gateway for US imports from China, are among the least efficient container ports in the world, according to a ranking by the World Bank and IHS Markit.

automation solution

Speaking to the union and the shipping industry, Lyons said he was describing a role for automation that doesn’t displace workers from jobs only humans can do.

“Automation must be part of the future solution, but not at the expense of manpower,” said Lyons. “Work must be part of the solution.”

It’s reasonable for companies to consider investing in technology that would improve production and efficiency, Lyons said.

Lyons was speaking at S&P Global Market Intelligence’s TPM23 conference in Long Beach, California, where more than 3,700 container shipping industry representatives are gathered to kick off contract signing season after years of pandemic turbulence have kept many importers months waiting for their goods – and paying record highs freight rates. As supply voltages have eased, a potential glut of capacity has sent those rates plummeting and could turn the tide against unprecedented profits for shipping companies.

Lyons said he is expected to leave the Biden administration in late May when his term ends.

“I’ll probably stick to that,” said Lyons, who succeeded John Porcari as President Joe Biden’s envoy for ports and supply chains in May last year.

Biden intended nominate Assistant Secretary of Labor Julie Su is set to replace Walsh and is expected to lead the department on an acting basis until the Senate takes up her nomination.

© 2023 Bloomberg LP

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